Brian Massumi on threat and the autopoiesis of affective logic

Some rough notes and tentative thoughts:

Affect is closely associated with the virtual, understood as surplus possibility, or complexity from which to select. Brian Massumi speaks of the “affect-driven logic of the could have/would have” (“The Political Ontology of Threat,” 55). The would-have/could-have is a double conditional. For example, the president argues that Saddam Hussein could have possessed weapons of mass destruction, and if he did have them he would have used them. In the end, the fact that Saddam did not have WMD doesn’t matter because he could have had them–and then he would have (probably) used them. Better safe than sorry. Preemptive logic, as in the logic of preemptive military strike, relies the double conditional. It’s a kind of logical trap.

Preemptive action will always have been right (Massumi 54).

A threat alert is a sign, an “affective fact.” Affective facts–signs standing in for a possible event–can persuade. They can generate the same fear that the actual fact can produce. People panic just as much regardless of whether anything real backs up the threat. The objective referent isn’t necessary. A sign is enough. This is “the reality of appearance” (Whitehead). As Massumi puts it,

There is a common category of entities, known to all, that specializes in making what is not actually present really present nonetheless, in and as its own effect: signs. The sign is the vehicle for making presently felt the potential force of the objectively absent.

Massumi gives the example of a fire alarm. There is a direct connection between the fire alarm as sign and the physiological response. We don’t think about how to respond to the fire alarm. One’s body is just set in motion. It’s a reflex, probably at the primitive, “reptile brain” level. This makes sense because in the event of an actual emergency like being caught in a fire, there is no time to think, and even less time to discuss the issue. The difference between responding to a sign of current danger (fire alarm) and responding to a sign for future danger (terrorism)  is that preemptive action is always right because of the double conditional.

A person responds to a fire alarm because the fire alarm resonates with the body, or the human sensorium–the sum of an organism’s perception; in other words, the human sensorium has resonance capability; the fire alarm irritates the sensorium, setting the body in motion. Some events resonate with the human sensorium and some don’t. For instance, only a limited range of frequencies of sound and light register/resonate.

Preemptive logic, according to Massumi, is not like normative logic. The rule of noncontradiction doesn’t apply.

Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future, preemptive logic is not subject to the same rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attribute an effective reality to futurity.

Preemptive logic is based on threat. Threat, in systems-theoretical terms, is a symbolically generalized communication medium. It is one kind of operative logic. If threat is a communication medium, it’s like money, scientific truth, or love in that sense–a medium that can be reused and a surplus tends to be held in reserve. If a political system uses a medium like threat or punishment too much, it loses its effect. Threat, like power more generally, is most effective when held in reserve, not used indiscriminately. Its helps the regime of power if there is “surplus threat” (Massumi, 60). The threat or possibility of attack is always more effective, in the long run, than an actual attack, because the actual attack locks the attacker into a series of unpredictable consequences. It raises problems in the process of solving a problem.

The media serve to make improbable communication more probable. At the same time, they solve a paradox.

Preemptive logic doesn’t operate in the factual realm (what is/is not the case). It operates in the temporal realm—what could happen and what we must do now, in the present, to prevent it.

Proposition: If we feel a threat, there is a threat. Threat is effectively self-causing.

Corollary: If we feel a threat, such that there was a threat, then there will always have been a threat. Threat is once and for all, in the nonlinear time of its own choosing. (Massumi 54)

Is there goal for an operative logic?

“What does an operative logic want? Itself. Its own continuance. It is autopoietic. An operative logic’s self-causative powers drive it automatically to extend itself. Its autopoietic mode of operation is one with a drive to universalize itself” (Massumi 63).


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